Abraham's Silence

The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God

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It is traditional to think we should praise Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son as proof of his love for God. But have we misread the point of the story? Is it possible that a careful reading of Genesis 22 could reveal that God was not pleased with Abraham's silent obedience?

J. Richard Middleton suggests we have misread and misapplied the story of the binding of Isaac and shows that God desires something other than silent obedience in difficult times. Middleton focuses on the ethical and theological problem of Abraham's silence and explores the rich biblical tradition of vigorous prayer, including the lament psalms, as a resource for faith. Middleton also examines the book of Job in terms of God validating Job's lament as "right speech," showing how the vocal Job provides an alternative to the silent Abraham.

Abraham's Silence provides a fresh interpretation of Genesis 22 and reinforces the church's resurgent interest in lament as an appropriate response to God. Professors and students of the Bible, theology, and spirituality; pastors and church leaders; biblical scholars and theologians; and Jewish Rabbis, scholars, and laypeople will all value this work.

Contents

Introduction: Does Abraham's Silence Matter?
Part 1: Models of Vigorous Prayer in the Bible
1. Voices from the Ragged Edge
2. God's Loyal Opposition
Part 2: Making Sense of the Book of Job
3. The Question of Appropriate Speech
4. Does God Come to Bury Job or to Praise Him?
Part 3: Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straitjacket of Tradition
5. Is It Permissible to Criticize Abraham or God?
6. Reading Rhetorical Signals in the Aqedah and Job
7. Did Abraham Pass the Test?
Conclusion: The Gritty Spirituality of Lament
Indexes


Endorsements

"Long ago 'The Preacher' concluded, 'There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak' (Eccles. 3:7). Now Richard Middleton, in the wake of 'the preacher,' wades boldly into the enigma of silence and speech. He ponders the demanding speech addressed to God by Moses, the prophets, and most especially by Job. But then he turns to Abraham's stunning silence before God concerning the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the son whom Abraham loves. Middleton judges that Abraham's silence means that Abraham has not fully probed God's mercy, but settles for a God less than fully merciful. Middleton's indictment of Abraham is a daring judgment that collides with the usual practice of the piety and prayer of the faithful, both Jews and Christians, and with the judgment of our foremost interpreters. This is interpretation at its most daring and at its best. Middleton sees the urgency of speaking up to God, a 'speaking up' in which God delights (see Job 42:7)! Middleton's conclusion matters among us now in a time of authoritarian silencing all around us."

Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary

"This book is an extraordinary commentary on the meaning of the Aqedah (Genesis 22). I consider this to be a masterpiece of once-in-a-generation quality. It is also a narrative of a personal theological journey to faith that can be read with great profit by anyone who wants to find God in a time of Divine hiddenness and rampant doubt.

Abraham's Silence respectfully reverses millennia of traditions (Jewish and Christian) that praise Abraham's unquestioning obedience to the instruction to sacrifice Isaac, while taking them seriously and honoring them. The book elevates the lesson of the Aqedah from a test of obedience to God to a challenge to better understand Yhwh's nature as the covenanting God of justice and morality who would have welcomed Abraham's plea for justice for an innocent son. Middleton's treatment gives us a new understanding of a chapter that has launched a thousand theological reflections and about which one could have sworn there was nothing new to be said.

Middleton develops remarkable parallels between Job and Abraham. In the process he offers a fresh interpretation of Job's arguments with God and of the differences between God's two specific responses to Job. This brings forward the central importance of the psalms of lament, leading us to an understanding of walking through life with God, which includes periods of darkness, losing our way, and even alienation from God yet culminates with a deeper faith and a more unbreakable connection to God.

Finally, as a Jew, I deeply appreciate the theological humility with which the whole book is written. This includes reading and listening to the Jewish traditional commentaries with utmost respect. I appreciate how Middleton resists slipping into Christian apologetics or alleged 'superiorities' over Judaism at key turning points in the commentary. The result is a fair-minded, 360-degree scan of all the available wisdom on a theological conundrum that has baffled the wise for centuries. Amazingly, the book will be meaningful and inspiring to devout Christians and Jews as well as to those who read for academic or scholarly insights.

This book deserves to reach the widest possible audience of Bible readers. Readers will universally find themselves challenged, enlightened, informed, and inspired."

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, president, J. J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life, Hadar Institute

"In this groundbreaking work, Middleton dares to question Abraham's unquestioning obedience in Genesis 22. His approach is robustly biblical-theological, but his outside-the-box thinking offers an intriguing new solution to two interpretive puzzles: the binding of Isaac and the testing of Job. The pastoral implications of this book make it a must-read for pastors and biblical scholars alike."

Carmen Joy Imes, associate professor of Old Testament, Biola University

"I have been learning from Richard Middleton for over twenty-five years. From him I learned that, in the Bible itself, God invites our questions and doubts. He showed me--through the Psalms and Job--that lament is faithful. This marvelous book exhibits the singular combination that is Richard Middleton: a deep and broad attunement to the Scriptures and a keen philosophical sensibility, both wed to a profoundly pastoral concern. A gift for both church and academy."

James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy, Calvin University

"Drawing from a broad range of biblical, Jewish, and Christian traditions, Middleton argues in compelling fashion that Abraham's silence in Genesis 22 was a failure. In so doing, Middleton more broadly makes the case for lament as an integral practice of faith in a God who welcomes chutzpah rather than blind obedience. Whether you agree or not, you will not read the Aqedah story in the same way. Or Job and the Psalms."

William P. Brown, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary

"Ecclesiastes 3 famously says there is a time for everything, including 'a time to keep silence, and a time to speak' (3:7). In this book, Middleton invites us to ponder the silence of Abraham before God and the words of Job and other voices of protest and lament. From Middleton you can always expect penetrating exegetical insight, but the deeper value here is his case for bold and vigorous prayer in the face of suffering and pain. Middleton's rich blend of breadth and depth makes for engaging and transformative reading."

Nijay Gupta, professor of New Testament, Northern Seminary

"Generations of theologians, commentators, philosophers, writers, and artists--both Jews and Christians--struggled and are still struggling with the most puzzling and horrifying stories: the binding of Isaac (the Akedah), who is meant to be offered as a burnt offering by his father, and the suffering of Job, the 'blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.' Abraham's Silence by J. Richard Middleton is a stimulating and important contribution to the ongoing study of these incredible biblical texts where God 'tests' his most faithful servants. The author straightforwardly discusses various theological, exegetical, and rhetorical issues in these Scriptures and sheds a fresh light on them."

Isaac Kalimi, member ordinarius, Academia Europaea: The Pan-European Academy of Sciences, Humanities & Letters

"What do you say to God when bad things happen? In this fascinating and insightful study of Abraham and Job, Middleton invites us to reconsider what God desires from those who are suffering. Beware! This book will change the way you think about God and transform your spiritual life. A must-read for every student of Scripture."

Amanda W. Benckhuysen, director of Safe Church Ministry, Christian Reformed Church

"In Abraham's Silence Richard Middleton brings together penetrating analysis of biblical texts, keen theological insight, and remarkable clarity of presentation. Middleton is not afraid to ask difficult, painful questions--about God, about Abraham, and about what a life of faith should look like. Whether you agree with his arguments or not, you will undoubtedly learn and grow from this provocative book."

Shai Held, author of The Heart of Torah


The Author

  1. J. Richard Middleton

    J. Richard Middleton

    J. Richard Middleton (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. He is the author of The Liberating Image and the award-winning A New Heaven and a New...

    Continue reading about J. Richard Middleton


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